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Wilson County farmers who hire foreign workers to help plant, nourish, harvest and pack agricultural produce can breathe a sigh of relief after the federal government announced an effort to reduce delays and travel restrictions for H-2A workers at the border.
Wilson County had 1,251 H-2A workers in 2018, all of whom are from Mexico and must cross the U.S. southern border.
The partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Labor was mentioned Friday in press conference with President Donald J. Trump that included updates on the COVID-19 crisis.
“Ensuring minimal disruption for our agricultural workforce during these uncertain times is a top priority for this administration,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “President Trump knows that these workers are critical to maintaining our food supply and our farmers and ranchers are counting on their ability to work. We will continue to work to make sure our supply chain is impacted as minimally as possible.”
Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, said tobacco, sweet potato and other vegetable production is “very important to the agriculture economy in Wilson County.”
“Those commodities generated over $88 million in gross farm income last year and represent 62% of the total gross farm income in Wilson County,” Harrell said. “These crops have a high labor requirement to grow and harvest. Growers rely on guest workers to complete these tasks. If the guest workers were not available, it would be disastrous for the agriculture community.”
“The processing of guest workers is great news for the agricultural community. Every week that goes by, there are more jobs on the farm that need to be accomplished with guest workers,” Harrell said
‘HEARTBEAT’ OF THE FARM
James Sharp, owner of Deans Farm Market in Wilson, said he uses about 50 H-2A workers from Mexico and about half of them have arrived.
“They plant and harvest our strawberries, lettuce and watermelons and sweet corn,” Sharp said.
Sharp said it’s a relief that the workers will not be held up at the border. Without them, Sharp would not be able to harvest the crops.
“It would impact us immediately. Strawberries were planted last October and they are going to be ready to harvest here in a couple of weeks about the 10th of April, and that is a crop that we harvest every other day,” Sharp said. “Most all farms depend on these workers to plant and harvest our crops. Without them, we would have a break in our supply chain of American-produced food.”
Sarah Carraway, a manager at Lancaster Farms, agreed.
“That is a very accurate statement,” she said.
Lancaster Farms receives 141 H-2A workers in three batches in March, April and May. Caraway said 32 workers have already arrived.
The workers help in the production of cucumbers, watermelons, tobacco, cotton, soybeans, sweet potatoes and peanuts.
“We have been told that we are getting our H-2As. Hopefully, they’ve crossed the border,” Lancaster said.
“If we don’t have H-2As, there’s not much of a business,” Carraway said. “H-2As are pretty important to our farm. They are the heartbeat. They make us roll and we are appreciative of them, and we are appreciative that they are allowing them to cross the border. Probably not enough thank-yous there considering they have cut off everybody else.”
Carraway said the workers who have been part of the Lancaster Farms operation in years past will be able to cross the border freely.
“If they worked previously to 2020, they are assured that they will be crossing at the border,” Carraway said. “They are not promising new applicants will be looked at just because they are trying to prioritize the ones that already have been here and had their paperwork done and have everything ready. I think the process is a little bit easier.
“I read a memo this morning that they are crossing only H-2As, so we are very fortunate that whoever is making that decision, whether it is Trump or whoever, is making that decision that we are moving forward realizing that agriculture is very important. If (there’s) nothing else people are doing right now, they are eating.”
Jerome Vick, owner of Vick Family Farms, said that operation uses about 160 H-2A workers.
“They are primarily in the planting and harvesting business here, transplanting sweet potatoes and harvesting tobacco topping and suckering and harvesting sweet potatoes. A few of those have come in, but not all of them,” Vick said. “I’ve got enough to plant my tobacco, which comes first.”
Lee Wicker is deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, a cooperative supported by some 650 North Carolina farmers who all participate in H-2A and who employ more than 9,000 H-2A workers this year.
“You name it, our guys are growing it,” Wicker said. “We’re thrilled. These workers are absolutely critical to our farmers’ operations and growing food for our nation, and I think this coronavirus should be a wake-up call for all Americans about the importance of us growing our food right here in the United States.”
“These workers coming here, many of them have been coming here for two decades, and they are absolutely essential for us to grow crops,” Wicker said.